“IT’S EXTRAORDINARY, ISN’T IT?” Kenneth Cole asks me.
It’s late June, and we’re here to discuss the 30th anniversary of his eponymous fashion label. All Cole wants to talk about, though, is a Supreme Court ruling from earlier this morning that deemed the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, a major win for proponents of same-sex marriage.
“Just a year ago,” he continues, “if someone had even suggested this scenario could take place, I don’t think anybody would have believed it.”
With another designer, this morsel of political chitchat might seem like little more than a friendly aside. But for Cole, it’s a fundamental insight into one of the driving forces behind his career. From the get-go, the now-59-year-old Brooklynite has seemed hyperconscious of the perception of fashion as a flighty and vain profession. “I’ve struggled through that, personally,” he admits. “I wanted to engage people on a meaningful level.” As a result, he’s built his brand as much on social activism and thought-provoking advertising as he has on loafers and dress shirts.
In 1985, just two years removed from launching Kenneth Cole Productions out of a 40-foot trailer, Cole became the first fashion designer to vocally support AIDS awareness and research. Since then, he’s become chair of amfAR and a founding board member of HELP USA, founded the Kenneth Cole Foundation to promote and encourage agents of progressive social change, and opened the Kenneth Cole Haiti Health Center at St. Mary’s Hospital in Cité Soleil.
“I think that’s an extraordinary privilege in this industry,” Cole says, “to be able to talk to you about not only what’s on your body, but also what’s on your mind.”
That push-pull between matters philosophical and sartorial have at times led to somewhat unusual decisions from a fashion perspective. In 2006, Cole retreated from the runway, questioning the relevance of showing clothes that, to a large degree, would never end up in stores. “I felt we were frustrating our audience more than we were inspiring them,” he says. Earlier this year, however, Cole made a triumphant return at New York Fashion Week, emboldened by the advent of social media to level the playing field and empower the individual.
“It used to be that we would tell the world what we thought they should wear, how they should look, even what they should be aware of,” he says. “But fashion isn’t a monologue anymore—it’s a dialogue. Today, everyone is his or her own brand, and they curate what matters to them by pinning it, posting it, tweeting it.”
For the first time in a while, Cole’s engagement with his clothing seems on equal footing with his humanitarianism. In 2012, he bought back the company from shareholders and took it private, and his fall/winter collection reaped the benefits of that renewed commitment to the brand. It’s a timely mix of edgy streetwear and refined tailoring—what he’s dubbed “urban liberation”—and it is, without question, his strongest and most focused offering in years.
With 30 years of redefining the men’s market and setting a new standard for social responsibility amongst fashion designers to his credit, you’d think Cole would be content to take a moment to stop and soak it all in. Instead, though, he’s more inspired than ever—ready for the next chapter to begin. “We can’t sit back and reflect on where we’ve been,” he tells me. “We need to focus on where we’re going.”
Which, of course, begs the question, Where are you going?
“I’m not sure,” Cole replies. “I just hope we look good when we get there.”